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D&D 5E Why do guns do so much damage?


Speed absolutely matters. As Bruce Lee said, “Take a piece of lead the size of a rock and throw it at someone. Now take the same piece and shoot it out of a gun.”

The ballistic energy of a bullet is crazy, and if anything, damage is underrated.

the shot on the left is from a .22LR, and the shot on the right is a 9mm, both low energy rounds, and look what they did. A bullet wound is not just a finger wide hole. Imagine what a musket ball does, or a high velocity round like a 5.56 or 7.62 round.


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Trust the Fungus
There are two enormous fallacies at work here:

The first being, of course, that guns in the hands of even the most unwashed peasant-- much less the leveled D&D warrior!-- are magical death talismans that cannot be withstood or countered. Sometimes they punch lethally through the armors designed specifically to counter them, sometimes they have access to a much deadlier critical hit system than other weapons, sometimes they just have the absolute ability to oneshot kill absolutely anything on a Save or Die basis.

This is, in my experience, almost always the work of game designers with very little exposure to armed violence from either a professional or-- more importantly-- an academic perspective.

Second... and more pernicious... we are looking at the damage of firearms versus swords in terms of damage dice compared to the number and size of Hit Dice of human opposition. I don't feel like I should ever have to explain this to functional adults, but here we are: the measurement of weapon damage in die sizes compared to humanoid hit dice is also, entirely in itself, complete rubbish. Absolute nonsense.

If you're an untrained, unwashed peasant and you take a "solid blow" from a sword-- any kind of sword-- you die. If you take a vital shot from a firearm, literally a shot to the vitals, you die. If you take a solid blow from an arrow, a bolt, or a slung stone... regardless of the difference of those weapons' relative damage dice, you die. If the shot doesn't kill you, then whether you can keep fighting or you're forced out of the battle, you're going to spend months making whatever partial recovery is possible for you.

Thing is, though, it's the same for trained warriors. Their training and their equipment allow them to prevent some of those solid blows from disabling or killing them, but if a "lucky punk" gets a lucky shot with a flea-market switchblade, in the first round of combat-- something D&D rules don't model-- then the trained warrior, with more than one Hit Die that is more than a d4 in size, will die. If they take their helmet off and a small child throws a chunk of masonry at their exposed head, they die. Needless to say, if small arms fire breaches their armor... they stand a good chance of dying.

But not 100%, either. In the modern world, the rule is that if your heart is still beating when you're rolled into the trauma surgery, you're going to live. If a bullet doesn't hit a vital organ or a major artery, the human body can withstand a whole bunch of them; the reason being shot multiple times is more likely to be fatal is that you're more likely to get hit in something you need.

The only real difference, realistically speaking, between firearms and melee weapons is that the larger a firearm is, the more likely it is to kill you, while with a melee weapon, the larger it is, the less likely it is to crush or sever something important and kill you.

And the problem with this argument is, for the most part, we're trying to shove one truckload of nonsense into another and then demand it make sense.

Firearms, especially early firearms, are generally appropriately (if not realistically) depicted in terms of their rate-of-fire and reloading speed. Simply assign them whatever damage value you feel is right, in terms of how desirable you want them to be as player choices, and you're good to go. It's all nonsense anyway. There is nothing about the interaction between weapon damage and human injury in D&D that is even remotely realistic, so just go with whatever feels most natural in the combat rules you're already using. I think 5e's firearms rules are pretty okay, in comparison.

Personally, I like to go with d20 Modern's 2d4/2d6/2d8/2d10 classifications, with their default 20/x2 crit ranges... and if I can be bothered, I might do something about their ridiculous (short) rifle range increments and their even more ridiculous (long) pistol range increments.

Thunder Brother

God Learner
Part of the issue is that DnD combat doesn't simulate a weapon's ability to penetrate armor. A simple flintlock pistol has a good chance of penetrating even well-made plate armor, while the weapon in your video would be less-than-useful against an enemy in plate.


(He, Him)
I've got to unwatch: this thread is making my brain melt.

Look at the costs, ranges, and special traits of the ranged weapons (including +1 ranged weapons). Then come back to - is the listed Renaissance gun damage OP!?


Well, that was fun
Staff member
I was watching a drama about Anne Boleyn yesterday. She certainly didn't think swords don't do much damage.

The benefit of guns is that (a) they're ranged and (b) they're easier to operate. If damage was just about kinetic velocity then a rogue's sneak attack wouldn't do all that damage. Getting beheaded with an axe is just as fatal as being shot in the head by a gun. It's not the velocity, it's what you do with it.

Also, I feel like I have this exact conversation every couple of months! :D


Possibly a Idiot.
I'm going to step aside from the debate about the Real Physical or Mythological damage that swords and guns do, mostly because I think the point about the destructive nature of both weapons being grossly under-estimated has been beaten into the carcass of the dead horse by now. (Which I'm sure someone has a youtube video of.)

Instead, I will talk about the only thing more geeky than ballistic tests, spreadsheets!

Longswords do, in fact, under-perform in 5e.

As in the only characters who get a distinct benefit from using them are Monks, thanks to the optional class features in TCoE. Which again, has nothing to do with how many people you can bisect, and everything to do with how many bonuses you can stack while using them. There just isn't significant character option support in the 5e system for them. And this is despite longswords being the most iconic and most common type of magical weapon in all prior editions of D&D. In fact, magic longswords being so common and powerful was the entire reason that Thieves getting to wield longswords was considered a huge boon for the class.

In contrast, the Renaissance Firearms fit in near-perfectly with other ranged weapons.

They do a bigger die of damage than other options, but in return have lesser range. Additionally, characters have multiple effective avenues to greatly improve their potency. There are arguably problems such as cost, noise, and lack of magic items to pull from, but those well within the boundaries of DM discretion: If you are going to put guns in your game, you are going to make them work for the players that want them.


Well, that was fun
Staff member
Speed absolutely matters. As Bruce Lee said, “Take a piece of lead the size of a rock and throw it at someone. Now take the same piece and shoot it out of a gun.”

The ballistic energy of a bullet is crazy, and if anything, damage is underrated.

the shot on the left is from a .22LR, and the shot on the right is a 9mm, both low energy rounds, and look what they did. A bullet wound is not just a finger wide hole. Imagine what a musket ball does, or a high velocity round like a 5.56 or 7.62 round.

View attachment 137800
Then why does sneak attack work?

I think to simulate how gunpowder helped end the era of armored knights in our timeline. Because D&D doesn't use armor as damage resistance, you have to make guns more powerful.
In a different system they would do similar damage but with a higher Armor Piercing rating.
Guns didn't end knights by punching through armour. Plate armour was literally "proofed" by firing a close-range pistol shot into it.

Guns ended knights (and bowmen) by logistics: Arrows need to be crafted by skilled workers. Gunpowder can be made by the bucketload.
A knight takers years to train. A musketman can be trained to a base level of proficiency in weeks.
I'm bringing this all up because I'm considering using firearms in my campaign setting... but literally just making them into Crossbows for mechanical purposes.

Hand-Crossbow for Pistol. Heavy Crossbow for Rifle. Complete with the Crossbow Expert feat, because I sincerely feel like the amount of damage they do to a person is quite similar.

Plus I love the image of a swashbuckler with rapier and pistol because c'mon... that's -classic-.
Firstly, I wouldn't bother increasing damage much for a higher-tech firearm. If it actually gets into your body with a high degree of velocity, lead musket balls are as deadly as most bullets of equivalent power. - More modern firearms represent better ranges and rates of fire.

However bear in mind that D&D crossbows are already an abstraction. Even without the feats, they shoot much more rapidly than an actual crossbow could.
Pistol crossbows are even more so: there was never an historical equivalent, and even using modern materials you can't make a pistol-size crossbow that can be drawn with one hand yet is as powerful as a shortbow. In earlier editions they were more realistic: minimal damage, but used as a poison-delivery system.

So absolutely give your guns crossbow stats and allow your players the fantasy of flintlocks and rapiers. Just balance them against the AC of brocade coats and suitably-ruffled shirts.

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